Digital History of Busing

Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation (University of California Press), Matt Delmont’s national history of busing is an eagerly anticipated (at least around here) book that connects to many important historiographical trends. It promises to carry forward the work of undermining the notion of a Civil Rights movement that won broad acceptance until its leaders became too militant and demanding (generally in an imagined time called “the late sixties”) by showing that resistance to school desegregation began in the immediate aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education. And, in an intervention that is intimately related, Delmont promises to dismantle distinctions between de facto and de jure segregation and regional mythologies that have obscured nationwide resistance by metropolitan whites and their political representatives to desegregation. And, Delmont’s book proposes to show the ways that both local activists and national politicians framed a media narrative around busing that fixated on an instrument of desegregation and obscured the injustices that made the instrument necessary.

Delmont’s also used the Scalar platform to produce a cool digital companion site to the book, which is now live.

The site’s intro frames the contentions of the whole book rather effectively through a list of suggestions about how to teach busing that are pointed and useful, emphasizing the gaping holes in conventional narratives about busing and opposition to it–notably that New York whites protested busing for school integration in the early 1960s, that those protests led to drafting the 1964 Civil Rights Act in ways that prevented school districts from aggressively desegregating (including by busing), and that that nexus of protest and accommodation by nominally liberal legislators gave institutional support to a deceptive and disingenuous distinction between de facto and de jure segregation that allowed school districts nationally to avoid and minimize the scope of desegregation while focusing public attention on the alleged unfairness of busing programs that, in the grand scheme of things, affected a small portion of students in segregated schools.

Perhaps most insightfully, Delmont explores the relationship between antibusing activists and news media that broadcast a manichean narrative when covering the South, but were “unwilling to depict school integration outside of the South as a present civil rights activity in the North with the same moral clarity.” Antibusing activists were able to present themselves with sufficient credibility as grassroots defenders of their own children, muddling public perceptions of school desegregation so that “the white defense of school segregation in the North looked much more reasonable and justified than similar efforts in the South.” Further, the technological and financial constraints that network TV news programs faced in covering Civil Rights issues in the field created institutional pressures to focus attention on the South and on a narrow set of Northern cities that came to define the desegregation struggle, and to report with an amnesiac lack of attention to the long histories of school segregation in the North and protests to dismantle it. Within this frame, busing appeared to be an arbitrary and sudden product of judicial or political fiat (rather than a measure necessitated by persistent political refusals to desegregate) and opponents merely defenders of their children’s right to education (rather than defenders of segregated schools). Further, the framing of desegregation around “busing” obscured the complexity of political views in communities of color about desegregation. Rather than a discussion of the issues of community control, inclusive curriculum, representation in administration and on school boards, racist school discipline and tracking, and equalization of resources for white and nonwhite students, none of which were congruent with a narrow discussion of integration, media either marginalized Black and other minority critics of existing busing programs, or enlisted them as supporting witnesses for an argument that desegregation was a judicial imposition without any true constituency.

It’s a great digital history project. Check it out.

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Tribute to Dr. Cliff Kuhn

Dr. Cliff Kuhn of Georgia State University–oral historian, champion of labor history archives, and peerless public educator of Atlanta’s history–passed away today.

I had the good fortune to meet Cliff when I was a visiting scholar in Atlanta, and while I didn’t get to know him well, he was extremely generous with his vast knowledge of the city and the region at a time when I was just beginning a research project there.

I want to express my condolences to his family, his colleagues, and the Atlanta area. I would also recommend that anyone who knew Cliff or knew of his work read this wonderful tribute at Tropics of Meta by his colleague Alex Sayf Cummings.

On the Chi-Raq Trailer (Updates)

So, this trailer’s out, and I have a few thoughts.

Spike Lee’s adaptation of Lysistrata as a statement on violence in Chicago’s Black communities seems provocative. And it’s certainly Lee’s prerogative as a filmmaker to explore questions of violence as a (partial) product of toxic (Black) masculinity, or of the relationship between Black men and women.

But based on the trailer, I wonder about a few things.

Is there a character representing a carpetbagging, belligerent Mayor from the North Shore by way of Washington, D.C. and Wall Street, whose wife refuses to sleep with him until he stops privatizing public resources, shoveling TIF funds from the general fund to special development interests, and closing neighborhood schools, forcing kids to cross gang territories daily? (note: Mayor Rahm Emanuel is mad about Chi-Raq, but allegedly because he fears an impact to tourism, not because of how he’s portrayed)

UPDATE: How’d I forget about the private equity multi-millionaire Governor (and oenophile buddy of the Mayor) who’s created a politically useful (but unnecessary) budget crisis in order to attack political enemies (unions) and made after-school programs collateral damage? Is he getting any in this movie?

Are there characters representing gun sellers in suburban counties and Indiana who experience sexual denial until they stop profiting from the sale of instruments of death that they know full well will end up on the streets of Chicago?

Are there police officers who are likewise denied until their department stops holding people in a secret interrogation facility without communication from family or access to lawyers? Even as the city pays out millions of dollars to reparations to victims of police torture from decades past?

Are there business executives held to account through celibacy for relocating or automating manufacturing jobs?

Are there characters including now-dead mayors, aldermen, and housing authority leaders going without their lovers’ affections in the afterlife to answer for their roles in creating the “second ghetto“?

Because if there aren’t, I question the film’s working theory of the causes of urban violence.

And, really, while the female leadership of Lysistrata and the solidarity she creates among her sisters may seem an appealing image of women’s empowerment, the idea of women as a civilizing influence on the base instincts of men can cut in complicated ways, as Ida B. Wells argued in 1901. If the presumptive thesis of Chi-Raq is (and, pardon a reductionist reading of the trailer) that Black men’s predilection for violence can be overcome only by leveraging their stronger desire for sex, then that comes perilously close to blaming Black women for the alleged crimes of Black men (because they’ve failed in that disciplining capacity), and therefore justifying the actions of white men (in 1901, the lynch mob; in 2015 the police and the prison) in containing the threat. At risk of overthinking things about a film trailer, I’m reminded of Angela Davis’s critique (in Women, Race, and Class) of Susan Brownmiller’s insinuation (in Against Our Will) that Black women’s obligation is to oppose rape, even in terms that reinforce the subjugation of Black communities through images of dangerous and pathological Black male sexuality.

There are intersectional feminists much more qualified than I to parse this, so I’m not claiming any original or definitive insight. But it is a little concerning. Of course, a trailer is not a film, and Chi-Raq may have more up its sleeve; I’m willing to pay up to find out.

In the meantime, though, if we talk about withholding as a political strategy, we could talk about withholding other things:

Withholding labor in demand of living wages and control over working conditions-for people other than cops.

Withholding rent in demand of fair housing.

Withholding school attendance in demand of schools that serve communities.

UPDATE: thanks to the Twitter feed of historian Matt Delmont (@mattdelmont –whose synthetic history of school busing is on the must-read list), I’ve learned that there is a documentary in production about the 1963 Chicago School Boycott.

Withholding obedience to civil authority if these don’t work.

And, if you want to see something about Black men and women resisting violence in Chicago, it might be worth your while to (re)watch The Interrupters (full version):